Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of John Harris (c.1666-1719), c.1703 

Robert White (1645-1703)

Portrait of John Harris (c.1666-1719), c.1703, Robert White
Zoom
Graphite on vellum
17th Century
Oval, 4 5/8 in. (118 mm.) high
 
Provenance:
Christie’s, London, 9th November 1993, lot 1 (as ‘Unknown Gentleman’); Sotheby’s, London, 14th July 2010, lot 42 (as ‘Unknown Gentleman’)
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This plumbago portrait of John Harris, writer and lecturer on science, is almost certainly the preliminary drawing for an engraving made in 1704. This drawing must have been completed before Robert White’s death in 1703 – in fact, George Vertue confirms that the engraving was started by White and completed by his son. The engraving was used as the frontispiece of Harris’s Lexicon technicum; or An universal English dictionary of arts and sciences published in 1704.

Although a skilled draughtsman, Robert White was primarily a printmaker and produced over four hundred engravings from his portraits of well-known and influential individuals of the period, many of which were used as frontispieces for books and pamphlets. Copies of the 1704 engraving of Harris are in The Royal Society [RS.1656], where Harris was elected a fellow in 1696, and the National Portrait Gallery [NPG D31488].

John Harris completed his education at Trinity College Oxford in 1683, graduating with a BA and a MA, and was made a vicar of Icklesham in Sussex. On Valentine’s Day 1691 he was made the rector of Winchelsea. Alongside his career as a clergyman, Harris was well-connected to the Whig party and was good friends with William Cowper, lord keeper of the great seal and later Lord Chancellor. Harris became Cowper’s chaplain and through their friendship was able to secure a prebend at Rochester Cathedral in 1708. Another of Harris’s close friends was the Whig party member Charles Cox, MP for Southwark who supported the famous impeachment of Henry Sacheverell for his sermon attacking the Goldophin ministry.

In 1696 Harris was elected a fellow of The Royal Society, where he was briefly made secretary in 1709, and published Philosophical Transactions on Microscopical Observations of Animalcula the same year. For some time he taught mathematics privately in his own home near St Paul’s Cathedral before commencing a series of free lectures with Charles Cox in Southwark from 1698. As a book for his students, he translated Ignatius Gaston Pardies Short, but yet Plain Elements of Geometry and Plain Trigonometry which he dedicated to Cox in 1701. In the years that followed, support for Harris’s lectures dwindled, financial support from Cox became uncertain and he was eventually succeeded by the mathematician and experimentalist James Hodgson in 1707.

The engraving, taken from the present plumbago portrait, served as a frontispiece for the first volume by subscription of Lexicon techicum, or, An Universal English Dictionary of Arts and Sciences published in 1704, a year after Robert White’s death. This book was the first public work explaining the importance of Newton’s science and provided a prototype for several preceding volumes and later dictionaries of the Enlightenment. Harris’s final literary work was a long-term project, The History of Kent, which he was trying to get published at the time of his death. In 1719 John Harris died in poverty and was survived by his daughter.

Robert White Biography:
The art of producing plumbago portraits had been established in the Netherlands in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries and reached its height in popularity in Britain between 1650 and 1720. Many draughtsmen both in Britain and in the Netherlands, including Robert White, were primarily printmakers or publishers and the majority of their ad vivum drawings were intended to be made into engravings.

Robert White was a Londoner but apprenticed with the earliest and most influential plumbago portraitist in Britain at the time, David Loggan, who had a successful business in Oxford. White primarily drew buildings for Loggan whilst he was training but produced his own prints from 1666 to 1702. Although White was financially successful, he always kept the same house in Bloomsbury Market where he sold his prints. At the time of his death he did not leave a will and his son continued to live in his father’s print shop until his death.

White’s drawings are rare in private collections, however, three of his finest miniatures belong to the Duke of Portland and include a self-portrait of White, James Scott Duke of Monmouth and Buccleuch and a portrait of Charles II. Several of his plumbago portraits are in public collections including the British Museum, the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Ashmolean Museum and the Huntington Library in California.
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